A strong start for every Indigenous child - Inge Kral, Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith, Barbra Meek, Rowena Phair - OECD iLibrary

A strong start for every Indigenous child - Inge Kral, Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith, Barbra Meek, Rowena Phair - OECD iLibrary
OECD Education Working Papers No. 251

                                                  Inge Kral,
                                               Lyn Fasoli,
A strong start for every
                                           Hilary Smith,
      Indigenous child
                                          Barbra Meek,
                                         Rowena Phair
A strong start for every Indigenous child - Inge Kral, Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith, Barbra Meek, Rowena Phair - OECD iLibrary
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Unclassified                                                                                             English text only

                                                                                                                   22 July 2021

A Strong Start for Every Indigenous Child

OECD Education Working Paper No. 251

Inge Kral (The Australian National University), Lyn Fasoli (Charles Darwin
University), Hilary Smith (The Australian National University), Barbra Meek
(University of Michigan) and Rowena Phair (OECD)

 This working paper has been authorised by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Directorate
 for Education and Skills, OECD

Contact: Rowena Phair rowena.phair@oecd.org

This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory,
to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.
A strong start for every Indigenous child - Inge Kral, Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith, Barbra Meek, Rowena Phair - OECD iLibrary
2  EDU/WKP(2021)8

OECD Working Papers should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its
member countries. The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are those of the author(s).
Working Papers describe preliminary results or research in progress by the author(s) and are published
to stimulate discussion on a broad range of issues on which the OECD works. Comments on Working
Papers are welcome, and may be sent to the Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD, 2 rue André-
Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France.
This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or
sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the
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The use of this work, whether digital or print, is governed by the Terms and Conditions to be found at
Comment on the series is welcome, and should be sent to edu.contact@oecd.org.
This working paper has been authorised by Andreas Schleicher, Director of the Directorate for
Education and Skills, OECD.

                                                                   A STRONG START FOR EVERY INDIGENOUS CHILD

A strong start for every Indigenous child - Inge Kral, Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith, Barbra Meek, Rowena Phair - OECD iLibrary
EDU/WKP(2021)8    3


This Working Paper was prepared by Inge Kral from the Australian National University with
considerable input from Lyn Fasoli, Hilary Smith and Barbra Meek. Jane Simpson provided general
oversight and direction. Denise Angelo provided additional support and observations.
Rowena Phair authored some parts of the report, as well as structuring and editing the document as a
The authors would like to thank Susan Hitchiner, Carrie Richardson and Hanna Varkki for their support
for this project.
Delegates from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada initiated this paper, as part of ongoing
work by the OECD on promising practices to support the success of Indigenous students in education.
The work was funded by the Ministry of Education of British Columbia, Canada. The OECD Secretariat
gratefully acknowledges this contribution.
We respectfully acknowledge the languages and cultural expertise of the Indigenous peoples who read
this report.


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This Working Paper was developed to assist policy makers, education and Indigenous leaders, as well
as education practitioners, to better support Indigenous children’s early learning and well-being. The
paper focuses on early years policies and provision in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada. It
sets out a synthesis of evidence on children’s early development, with a particular focus on the
conditions and approaches that support positive outcomes for Indigenous children. The Working Paper
then outlines a set of promising initiatives that seek to create positive early learning environments for
Indigenous children. Drawing on the available evidence and promising approaches, the paper presents
a framework for strengthening Indigenous children’s early learning and well-being.

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Table of contents

Acknowledgements                                                                                  3
Abstract                                                                                          4
Introduction                                                                                      8
Early learning and well-being are critical for all children                                      10
   Children’s brains develop rapidly in the first few years of life                                10
   Early learning predicts school success and later life outcomes                                  11
   Safe nurturing environments best support children’s early development                           12
   Support for children and their families can make a positive difference                          12
   A holistic approach to development is key                                                       13
   In summary                                                                                      15

Colonisation has negatively affected Indigenous people’s well-being                              16
   Colonisation processes have undermined the well-being of Indigenous peoples                     16
     Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          16
     Australia                                                                                     17
     Canada                                                                                        18
   Growing populations                                                                             19
     Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          19
     Australia                                                                                     19
     Canada                                                                                        20
   Fragile languages                                                                               20
     Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          21
     Australia                                                                                     22
     Canada                                                                                        23
   In summary                                                                                      25

International and national policy frameworks emphasise Indigenous
   children’s development                                                                        26
   International instruments recognise children’s rights                                           26
   Responsibility for Indigenous children’s early learning outcomes is not always clear            27
   Objectives for change                                                                           27
   Early learning frameworks                                                                       28
     Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          28
     Australia                                                                                     29
     Canada                                                                                        30


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    Building high quality provision and support                                                     32
    Evidence to improve and track progress                                                          33
      Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          33
      Australia                                                                                     33
      Canada                                                                                        34
    In summary                                                                                      34

Early years provision for Indigenous children is expanding                                       35
    Diverse provision                                                                               35
      Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          35
      Australia                                                                                     35
      Canada                                                                                        36
    Some provision specifically targets Indigenous children and their families                      36
      Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          36
      Australia                                                                                     37
      Canada                                                                                        40
    Access and participation rates are growing, although gaps remain                                41
      Aotearoa, New Zealand                                                                         41
      Australia                                                                                     42
      Canada                                                                                        42
    Funding mechanisms can inhibit access                                                           43
      Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          43
      Australia                                                                                     44
      Canada                                                                                        44
    Workforce challenges                                                                            44
      Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                          44
      Australia                                                                                     45
      Canada                                                                                        45
    In summary                                                                                      46

A limited evidence base, for and by Indigenous communities                                       47
    Quality is contextual                                                                           47
    Improved evidence, by and for Indigenous peoples                                                50
    In summary                                                                                      52

Promising examples of early years provision for Indigenous children                              53
    Promising example 1: Families as First Teachers – Indigenous Parenting Support Services Program,
    Northern Territory                                                                               53
    Promising example 2: World Vision Early Childhood Care and Development, Kimberley, Western
    Australia                                                                                        54
      The key to success: community-led service delivery.                                            54
    Promising example 3: Niitsitapi li tass ksii mat tsoo kop (Niitsitapi Learning Centre), Alberta
    Canada                                                                                           55
    Promising example 4: Mowanjum Parent Early Learning Centre, Kimberley, Western Australia         56
    Promising example 5: The Ngaanyatjarra Early Years Program, Warburton, Western Australia         57
    Promising example 6: Child and Family Centre, Maningrida, Northern Territory, Australia          58
    Promising example 7: Strong early development and learning in Manitoba                           59
    In summary                                                                                       60

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Framework for strengthening Indigenous children’s early learning and
  well-being                                                         62
   Partnership is fundamental                                                                                      63
   A holistic approach to achieve child and family well-being                                                      64
   Early support for children and families                                                                         66
   Culturally responsive policies and practices                                                                    67
   Confident, capable early years educators                                                                        69
   Bridging children’s home languages                                                                              70
   Broad, strengths-based assessments                                                                              70
   Child-ready schools                                                                                             72
   In summary                                                                                                      72

References                                                                                                      74

Table 1. Increased Māori participation in early childhood education and care                                       42

Figure 1. Risk and protective factors affect development trajectories                                               11
Figure 2. Early development predicts later life outcomes                                                            11
Figure 3. Predicted percentage effects on adult earnings of early childhood programmes, based on test scores versus
adult outcomes                                                                                                      13
Figure 4. Key focus areas of early learning for Indigenous children                                                 15
Figure 5. Gains in language development                                                                             60
Figure 6. Framework for strengthening Indigenous children’s early learning and well-being                           62

Box 1. Indigenous Languages                                                                                        21
Box 2. Dene Suline transitional immersion programme, Saskatchewan, Canada                                          24
Box 3. Te Whāriki, Aotearoa New Zealand                                                                            29
Box 4. Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) Framework – development process                             31
Box 5. First Peoples Principles of Learning                                                                        31
Box 6. Home Interaction Programme for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY), Australia                                    38
Box 7. Early Years Centres (EYC), Queensland                                                                       39
Box 8. First Nations and Inuit Child Care Initiative                                                               40


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          “Every child needs at least one person who is crazy about [them]” (Bronfenbrenner,
          1979), but one person is not enough. In addition to having one person who is “crazy
          about them”, children also need to feel that they are supported, that they are valued and
          that they belong – as do their parents, their families and expectant parents. They need
          a service system and broader sociopolitical environment that supports and facilitates
          positive parent-child interactions and attachments, high-quality care and learning
          experiences in all environments and timely, appropriate and effective support when
          problems arise. (Goldfeld et al., 2016[1])

This Working Paper focuses on Indigenous children’s early learning and well-being in three OECD
countries: Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada.
Indigenous communities in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada share a legacy of colonisation
and assimilation. The detrimental effects of early settler-colonial policies are still evident today in many
families and communities. With the reclaiming of cultural identity and sovereignty from the late
20th century, Indigenous communities around the world have focused on the next generation to keep
languages and cultures strong. This places a particular focus on early years policies as a locus for
utilising Indigenous cultural knowledge frameworks and strengthening Indigenous communities.
Having a strong early start matters for all children and for Indigenous children it is a matter of urgency.
Long-term inequality, discrimination and poverty have created structural deficiencies that have led to
Indigenous peoples around the world being over-represented in their need for health and other services.
Health and education indicators reflect the cumulative effects of pervasive poverty and social exclusion.
Indigenous children are at a higher risk of living in poverty and encountering other obstacles that impede
optimum development. Finding ways to overcome these challenges is crucial.
One important way of reducing inequities during early childhood is through the provision of high-
quality early childhood education and care (Heckman, 2017[2]). Longitudinal studies from targeted early
childhood education and care (ECEC) programmes have shown significant positive impacts for
children’s outcomes throughout schooling and into adulthood (Shuey and Kankaraš, 2018[3]). These
effects include better education achievement, employment and earnings, and health and social outcomes
(OECD, 2020[4]). Thus, investing in high-quality ECEC programmes for Indigenous children is critical
to redressing socio-economic imbalances. Yet the evidence indicates that Indigenous children have
lower access to such programmes than their non-Indigenous counterparts (OECD, 2017[5]).
This Working Paper identifies the importance of high-quality early years learning programmes
(Heckman, 2017[2]; Hutchins, Saggers and Frances, 2009[6]; Sims, 2011[7]; Sylva, 2010[8]) for Indigenous
children. The knowledge, skills and strategies acquired by Indigenous children in these important
formative years set the foundation for how they navigate complex and dynamic cultural worlds, multiple
languages, and shifting national and global contexts as they transition through childhood to adulthood.
The paper identifies the importance of holistic, strengths-based approaches to programme development,
design and control, respect for Indigenous languages and cultures and close consultation with
Indigenous communities to ensure that programmes reflect their cultural views and priorities. A child-
centred, holistic approach recognises that children’s learning takes place in dynamic interaction with
what is happening in their families, communities, environments and societal contexts, and over time.

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A holistic approach also acknowledges the complex interplay of factors that lead to successful child
outcomes. Thus, the effectiveness of early years programmes for Indigenous children should be
measured not only by individual child outcomes, but also by the degree to which programmes meet the
aspirations of Indigenous families and communities. This approach draws explicit attention to the
cultural and historical context of children’s learning within the family and community.
The paper concludes with a recommended framework for strengthening Indigenous children’s early
learning and well-being. The framework has eight pillars:
   1. Partnership between Indigenous communities and education agencies as a fundamental platform
      for strategies and polices affecting Indigenous children and their families
   2. A holistic approach to achieve child and family well-being, addressing the range of needs that
      affect children’s development
   3. Early support for children and families, where additional assistance is beneficial
   4. Early years policies that are culturally responsive, meaning these are led and developed with
      the Indigenous communities the policies are intended to support
   5. Confident, capable Indigenous and non-Indigenous early years educators, with skills and
      knowledge in local Indigenous cultures and languages, and in early years pedagogy
   6. Bridging children’s home languages, to strengthen children’s overall development and language
   7. Broad, strengths-based assessments to track child development and well-being, and to reflect
      local priorities such as language and cultural knowledge
   8. Child-ready schools, to manage smooth transitions for children’s entry to school.


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 Early learning and well-being are
 critical for all children
We begin this Working Paper by outlining the evidence base underpinning the benefits of positive early
years’ development for all children.
It is now better understood that:
         Biology and a child’s environment work together in the early years to influence ongoing well-being
          and other outcomes
         Positive early life experiences benefit children, families and communities
         Developing strong early skills is important as a predictor of later school success and lifetime
         Children’s home environments are the most powerful determinant of children’s early learning and
         High-quality early childhood education and care programmes can enhance the lives of children and
          their families, and deliver significant long-term benefits (OECD, 2020[4]).

Children’s brains develop rapidly in the first few years of life

New brain and life course development research has helped us to understand a lot more about children’s
early growth, development and learning, and the ways that biology and the environment work together in
the early years to shape a person for their lifetime. We now understand that the first 5 years of a child’s
life is a crucial period for brain plasticity and the development of cognitive and social-emotional processes.
From a neurological perspective, early childhood experiences have a decisive impact on the architecture
of the brain (Tarlov and Debbink, 2008[9]).
Moreover, the first 1 000 days after conception (i.e. to age 2) is further highlighted as a critical period for
development. This is because early life experiences become built into the body and brain (hard-wired) with
lifelong effects on health and well-being (Australian Medical Association (AMA), 2013[10]).
The window for positive early learning closes when children are about 7 years old, due to a sharp decrease
in brain malleability at this point (Stiles and Jernigan, 2010[11]). Protective factors that support children’s
development during this phase include regular, warm, stimulating interactions with their parents and other
caregivers. Risk factors that impede development include exposure to stresses, such as violence in the
home and poor nutrition.
Children who experience supportive early learning environments develop rapidly, establishing a sound
base for ongoing learning and achievement. Children who do not have a good start, however, can still be
assisted through well-targeted, early supports that increase the balance of protective factors over risk
factors. Thus, interventions are most effective during the early childhood years when the brain is most
malleable, enabling development to accelerate and shaping children’s long-term ability to learn, as
illustrated in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. Risk and protective factors affect development trajectories

Source: Adapted from (Walker et al., 2011[12]), “Early Childhood Benefits Adult Competence and Reduces Violent Behaviour”,

Early learning predicts school success and later life outcomes

There is a growing body of evidence showing that children starting strong in their learning and well-being
will have better outcomes when they grow older (OECD, 2020[4]). Positive early child development (before
age 5) has been found in longitudinal studies to be linked with better educational attainment, physical and
mental health, socio-economic outcomes, self-reported life satisfaction and well-being (Health Canada and
Public Health Agency of Canada, 2017[13]).
The early development that relates to these later positive outcomes is holistic, and includes a child’s
attachment to their parents/caregivers, social and emotional well-being, critical early cognitive skills such
as language development, and self-regulation, as set out in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Early development predicts later life outcomes


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          The most effective investment governments can make to enhance education and later life
          outcomes is to provide a strong start in children’s early years. Seeking to ameliorate
          individual or systemic learning issues at later ages is less successful and more costly than
          doing so earlier (Phair, 2021[14]).

Safe nurturing environments best support children’s early development

Study findings from Silburn et al. (2018[15]) demonstrate the extent to which socio-cultural and economic
circumstances influence all children’s early health, development and learning. They highlight the extent to
which children’s development and school learning is underpinned by their health status – particularly in
early life and throughout childhood.
Research has converged around the fundamental conditions that need to be in place for children to get the
best start in life and how early life experiences influence individual health and life outcomes. These
essential baseline conditions include:
         Adequate ante-natal care and maternal nutrition
         Secure and stable housing
         Sound and appropriate nutrition
         Stable and nurturing relationships
         Safe and supportive communities (Center on the Developing Child, 2010[16]).
Early skill development starts primarily in the home, building on early attachment, with activities between
children and their parents and/or caregivers being the main determinant of early learning (OECD, 2020[4]).
Therefore, improving Indigenous children’s early learning outcomes requires a focus not only on early
support for Indigenous children but also for their families and communities (Sims, 2011[7]).
Young children benefit from developing cognitive and social-emotional skills that help them thrive every
day. When young children are nurtured within a stimulating and supportive environment, they are more
likely to develop an extensive range of positive personal, social and intellectual traits, including self-
confidence, mental health, motivation to learn and the ability to control aggression, solve conflict in
nonviolent ways and develop and sustain friendships (Tarlov and Debbink, 2008[9]).

Support for children and their families can make a positive difference

Extensive research has shown that targeted investments during the early years can promote healthy
development in both children and families, counteract stressors and deprivations that can erode
opportunities for optimal health and development, and make a significant contribution to educational
achievement, economic success and subsequent parenting of the next generation (Phair, 2021[14]).
One of the most cited studies on return on investment in this field is the HighScope Perry Pre-school
Program, a 50-year longitudinal study on the effect of early childhood programming on children from low-
income families in the United States (Heckman, 2017[2]). The study demonstrates the major impact that
participation in early childhood development programming can have on both educational and life
The size of early learning effects on adult outcomes is significant. As set out in Figure 3, four key
longitudinal studies have found effect sizes on adult earnings ranging from 10% to 25%.
An argument against early years investment, however, has been that early skills fade out in primary school.
While this is the case, longitudinal studies show that the impact of positive early learning re-emerges later

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in schooling and continues into adulthood. In fact, children’s test scores at the age of 5 better predict adult
outcomes than those in primary school. Thus, strong early learning acts as a foundation or reserve capacity
that, once consolidated during early schooling, then provides a protective and fertile base for greater skill
development during the remaining school years and into adolescence and adulthood (Staudinger et al.,

Figure 3. Predicted percentage effects on adult earnings of early childhood programmes, based on
test scores versus adult outcomes

Note: Adult earnings effects are shown as predicted average percentage increase in earnings due to the programme, compared to
expected earnings if the person had not participated in the programme. CPC refers to Chicago Child-Parent Center Program.
Source: (Bartik, 2014[17]), From Pre-school to Prosperity: The Economic Payoff to Early Childhood Education, W.E. Upjohn

The Effective Pre-school and Primary Education study (Sylva E. et al., 2010[18]) found that duration of
ECEC participation is an important factor on children’s early development. Findings from this study show
that pre-school programmes are more effective where children participate for around two years before
starting school, compared with shorter periods of participation.
While findings on the optimal hours per week of early education and care are not fully conclusive, reviews
of the international evidence have concluded that a minimum of 15 hours, and possibly more, is required
for at least two years before formal schooling to improve learning outcomes (Pascoe and Brennan,

A holistic approach to development is key

Children’s early development is gaining currency as a viable strategy to close the learning gap and improve
equity in achieving lifelong learning and full developmental potential among young children. However,
UNICEF notes that any definition of early development or school readiness must:
         … understand the child, family and school as embedded within social, cultural and historic
         influences. Rather than seeing culture as a correlate of school readiness, this definition


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          takes a more cultural perspective in which school readiness is understood within the
          broader, more dynamic socio-cultural context. By acknowledging the diversity in defining
          childhood as well as in child contexts, the role of culture is seen as a powerful influence on
          the school readiness paradigm (UNICEF, 2018[20]).

Moyle argues that “school readiness” has generally been defined within a Western worldview, and that
there is an inherent assumption within the literature that school readiness includes the capacity or
preparedness of Indigenous children to adapt to and fit in with non-Indigenous school systems (Moyle,
2019[21]). Others point to additional difficulties with identifying and evaluating the important factors that
foster successful transitions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. McTurk et al. (2008[22])
conclude that there is a distinctive lack of rigorous research addressing the extent to which “models of
school readiness accord with Indigeneity”. They call for culturally-appropriate methods and measurements
of Indigenous school readiness needs and in particular Indigenous language skills that they considered
were being “inappropriately assessed or are seldom employed effectively as an assessment tool”.
“Cultural learning” embraces the notion of preparing the child for membership of, and participation in, the
family and community, and a developmental trajectory into multiple cultural worlds. Associated with this
is language learning, an important and often neglected issue for many Indigenous children whose home
language(s) are not those of formal learning environments.
In Australia, the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC) – a nationally representative study of
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children – presents insights into the learning aspirations Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander families have for their children. Data from a LSIC study found that while
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents and carers view education as a significant contributor to their
child’s success in mainstream culture, they also suggest that “growing up strong requires a balance between
this and cultural learning, understanding and identity” (SNAICC, 2013[23]).
Continuity is another dimension that is important for young children’s development. The concept of
“continuity” includes consistency of children's experiences across diverse care and education settings as
they grow up. It also includes the co-ordination of services and agencies affecting children at any given
point in time. This horizontal continuity includes policies and systems for consultations, referrals, and
follow-up. It encompasses the need for communication and collaboration among care providers; early
educators; health care providers; community support agencies; and, when the need arises, social services
and mental health professionals. It also extends to communication and collaboration with families
concerning the needs of the child and the services that are provided so that there is alignment in
understanding the child's needs, and the practices of professionals and families are complementary. Shared
knowledge among these service sectors and between providers and families enables co-ordination (Institute
of Medicine, National Research Council, 2015[24]).
Kearney et al. (2014[25]) discuss discontinuity challenges that many Indigenous children encounter at the
“cultural interface” as they enter school.
          Indigenous children who navigate both the community and the school contexts are
          sometimes faced with conflicting developmental, social and cultural expectations of their
          capabilities and capital. These conflicting expectations can lead to misunderstandings,
          feelings of shame, and quite often, negative experiences of schooling (Kearney et al.,

Children’s early learning is critical for the development of language skills, social-emotional skills such as
self-regulation and getting along with others, and for learning cultural norms and practices. We posit, in
Figure 4, a broad framework of early learning for Indigenous children; one that incorporates social,
emotional, cognitive, language and cultural learning.

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Figure 4. Key focus areas of early learning for Indigenous children

                  Social learning                                Emotional learning
          learning to get along with others                 learning to regulate behaviour

                                           Cultural learning
                                            learning to be in
                                           multiple domains

                  Language learning                                Cognitive learning
               learning to communicate                              learning to learn

OECD countries that are the focus of this Working Paper have already come some way towards officially
recognising the importance of cultural learning for Indigenous children’s identity and well-being. For
example, the Aotearoa New Zealand’s national Māori education strategy Ka Hikitia (New Zealand
Ministry of Education, 2020[26]) identifies two key factors for success; [high] quality provision and strong
engagement. This strategy embraces Ako – a two-way teaching and learning approach where identity,
language and culture underpin practice.

In summary

Children’s early years are critical for their current and future development and well-being. Support for
children’s early development is more effective when it embraces the holistic needs and well-being of the
child’s family. Support is also more effective when it is targeted at the earliest point possible in a child’s


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Colonisation has negatively affected
Indigenous people’s well-being
In this section, we briefly outline the colonial backgrounds of Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and
Canada that provide a context for the experiences Indigenous peoples in these three countries face today.
We also outline demographic trends and a snapshot of linguistic information from each country.

Colonisation processes have undermined the well-being of Indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples are diverse within and across the three countries addressed in this paper. What they do
share is a legacy of colonisation by the British Empire (Prochner, 2004[27]) impacting on language, culture,
identity and well-being in various ways. Prior to colonisation, Indigenous children spent their lives with
their extended family who assumed a shared responsibility for their upbringing. In this environment
children received the language, values and knowledge needed to survive in life and on the land. While
traditional child-rearing practices are still being used in many Indigenous families, colonisation and social
change have disrupted these practices to a greater or lesser extent in most families and communities, and
the legacy of colonisation has rippled through Indigenous societies up to this day.
Colonial governments drew on a set of common principles in relation to their interactions with Indigenous
peoples. Indigenous peoples experienced these interactions differently across nations and jurisdictions. For
some groups, remoteness was a factor that protected their languages, cultures and ways of being for longer,
while for groups in more settled regions, the impact of settler-colonialism was extreme. Despite these
variations, the aim and form of colonial education for Indigenous children was fairly similar across the
British Empire. An early focus on protection and Christian conversion was replaced by policies that were
aimed at assimilation. Schools were used as an instrument to assimilate Indigenous children into the values
and practices of settler-colonial societies. Over time most families lost the autonomy to determine what,
how and where their children should learn.
Across Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada many Indigenous people’s previous (and sometimes
current) negative experiences of schooling (Kearney et al., 2014[25]; Hare, 2012[28]); has led them to regard
educational institutions with caution.

Aotearoa New Zealand
The first settlers to arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand were ancestors of the Māori who are thought to have
arrived from Polynesia between 1200 and 1300 AD. The first European to arrive in Aotearoa New Zealand
was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, followed 127 years later by Captain James Cook in 1769.
At Waitangi on 6 February 1840, William Hobson, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Governor, invited
assembled Māori chiefs to sign a Treaty with the British Crown in which Aotearoa New Zealand became
a British colony. The Treaty was then taken around the country to enable other tribal chiefs to sign.
Eventually, more than 500 chiefs signed the Treaty, now known as the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o
Waitangi). The Treaty set out the rights of Māori and non-Māori, and is widely accepted as the country’s
founding document, in lieu of a constitution.
The history of colonisation in Aotearoa New Zealand has been framed by this Treaty of settlement. Mission
schools in the period of early contact were well attended by Māori adults and children and there was
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considerable literacy in both Māori and English in the 19th century (McRae, 1997[29]). A later wave of
assimilationist legislation and policy then swept aside any notion of protecting the rights of the Indigenous
people to their language, culture, and prestige (Rau and Ritchie, 2011[30]).
The Waitangi Tribunal, established as a form of government commission to investigate historical
grievances due to breaches of the Treaty, confirmed that the Māori language was an item of value, a taonga
       The Tribunal not only condemned the education system’s failure in regard to the protection
       of the taonga of the language. They went further in proclaiming that ‘‘Maori children leave
       school uneducated by normal standards, and that disability bedevils their progress for the
       rest of their lives’’. They further considered that “instruction in Maori should be available
       as of right to the children of parents who seek it” (Waitangi Tribunal, 1986[31]; Rau and
       Ritchie, 2011[30]).

The 1986 Tribunal findings were seminal in leading to innovations in education for Māori children,
including the early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki. However, as Pence and Pacini-Ketchabaw reflect,
the story starts earlier with the “focus on social changes that helped transform key Aotearoa New Zealand
opinion leaders’ understandings of their country from that of a relatively narrow Anglo/Western identity,
to a multicultural, multi-lingual identity” (Pence and Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2010[32]).
Nonetheless, an analysis by the Ministry of Health for the Waitangi Tribunal in 2019 showed that Māori
tended to be less advantaged than non-Māori across a range of socio-economic indicators in 2013,
including: school completion; unemployment; income; welfare dependency; living in a household without
telecommunications, Internet access or motor vehicle access; living in rented accommodation; and
household crowding. Māori are also more likely than non-Māori to live in the most deprived
neighbourhoods (New Zealand Ministry of Health, 2019[33]).


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on the land and islands of Australia for over
50 000 years. There were approximately 600 distinct Indigenous nations in Australia when, in the late
18th century, the British established colonies. No legal treaties were ever negotiated with Indigenous
Australians. As non-Indigenous settlers moved into Indigenous regions, Protection Acts were enacted by
state governments to regulate the lives of Indigenous Australians. In settled areas of Australia, thousands
of Aboriginal children, the “stolen generation” were removed from the care of their families well into the
20th century (Human Rights, 1997[34]). Colonial policies related to education were aimed at conversion
and assimilation. Education was mostly initiated by Christian groups whereas the State was slow to take
responsibility for the education of Indigenous children (Kral, 2012[35]; Lee et al., 2015[36]).
A plethora of early childhood programmes was established for Indigenous children from the 1960s. Most
of these efforts aimed to assimilate Indigenous children into Anglo-Australian society. The 1970s then saw
the introduction of a policy of Indigenous self-determination, and later self-management, which led to a
new focus on Indigenous education provision, including bilingual education programmes. Through
bilingual language programmes, literature production centres and early childhood programmes,
employment pathways for Indigenous educators were established (Anderson et al., 2018[37]).
Nonetheless, almost all trends pertaining to child health and well-being in Australia are worse for
Indigenous Australian children (Wise, 2013[38]). In addition, a clear gradient is evident of increasing
disadvantage the further children live from major cities (Bankwest Curtin Economic Centre, 2017[39]).
Australia’s low population density, across a vast geography, makes the equitable supply of educational and
social services particularly challenging across the diverse regions. Indigenous Australians experience


18  EDU/WKP(2021)8

significant health, education and employment disadvantage through lack of access and opportunities
afforded through government-sponsored services and a negligible labour market in remote regions. Those
living in regional and remote areas typically have lower levels of access to education, care and health
services and facilities than those living in major cities and urban areas. Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander children in remote Australia are more likely to experience a lack of access to appropriate services,
known to mediate the impact of adversity in early childhood (SNAICC, 2020[40]).


From the late 15th century, French and British expeditions explored, colonised, and fought over land
occupied by many Indigenous peoples in what constitutes present-day Canada. France ceded nearly all its
North American possessions to the British in 1763 after they were defeated in the Seven Years War. A
series of eleven Post-Confederation Treaties were signed between the First Nations, one of three groups of
Indigenous peoples in Canada, and the then reigning British monarchs of Canada between 1871 and 1921.
Commencing in the 1830s, “paternalistic policy reflected the priorities of protection and assimilation rather
than partnership” (Prochner, 2004[27]). Attention turned to children and assimilation through schooling,
especially removal to residential schools. For the Indigenous peoples of Canada,
          … the detrimental impact that the forced residential school system had on life, culture and
          language cannot be overstated. Over 150 years, Indian residential schools affected the
          lives of more than 150 000 children, who were often forced to live away from home
          communities for long periods of time and to give up the use of their language and culture
          … The impact has only now begun to be acknowledged politically… (Jung M. Klein and S.
          Stoll, 2018[41]).

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission confirmed the widespread neglect and abuse that
Indigenous children were subjected to in residential schools, causing high death rates among the children
and severe trauma, enduring across generations.
The legacy of colonisation and residential schools is evident in a range of outcomes in Indigenous
communities, including health, education, employment, income and overall well-being. This legacy also
includes a lack of trust in education institutions, especially in relation to younger children.
In 1969, the Federal Government assumed control of education for Indigenous children, which saw the
establishment of elementary schools on reserves. This included federal control of the curriculum, in
addition to the provision of funding.
By 1996, the critical role of language and culture in early childhood education was acknowledged. In its
report, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples stated that “Aboriginal people … see early childhood
education as a means of reinforcing Aboriginal identity, instilling the values, attitudes and behaviours that
give expression to Aboriginal cultures”. The Royal Commission recommended that early childhood
education services and programmes: be extended to all Aboriginal children regardless of their residence;
foster the physical, social, intellectual and spiritual development of children; and maximise Aboriginal
control over service design and administration (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 2015[42]).
In 2007, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirmed recognition of “the right of
Indigenous families and communities to retain shared responsibility for the upbringing, training, education
and well-being of their children, consistent with the rights of the child” (United Nations, 2007[43]).
And in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reinforced these principles and rights through a
number of calls to action (recommendations) relating to revitalisation of Aboriginal cultures and languages.
The Commission recommended the “develop[ment of] culturally-appropriate early childhood education
programs for Aboriginal families” and was explicit that “there is also a need to maximise Aboriginal

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EDU/WKP(2021)8      19

control over Aboriginal education, and to facilitate instruction in Aboriginal cultures and languages”. The
Commission further stated that “[t]hese educational measures will offer a realistic prospect of
reconciliation on the basis of equality and respect” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,

Growing populations

Aotearoa New Zealand

Māori are the only Indigenous peoples in Aotearoa New Zealand, although there are also three island
groups with Indigenous populations in the Realm of Aotearoa New Zealand: Tokelau (non-self-governing
dependent territory), Niue and Cook Islands (self-governing associated states). Their self-governing status
means that they are not included in discussions of the Aotearoa New Zealand Indigenous population.
In the 2018 Census, the percentage of the population who self-identified as Māori was 16.5% (Statistics
New Zealand, 2020[45]). The Māori population has a younger age structure than the non-Māori population,
with a median age in 2015 for Māori of 24, compared to 40 for non-Māori (Statistics New Zealand,
2018[46]). Most Māori live in the northern regions of the North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2015,
the greatest number was in Auckland (142 767), followed by Waikato (83 742). A significant Māori
population is also spread across Australia with the largest number in Queensland (53 634) (Te Puni Kokiri,

The estimated resident Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia as at the 2016 Census
was 798 400 people, or 3.3% of the total Australian population. This population estimate represents a 19%
increase from the estimate of 669 900 at 30 June 2011. In 2016, the largest populations of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Australians lived in New South Wales (265 700 people) and Queensland (221 400
people). The smallest population lived in the Australian Capital Territory (7 500 people).
Western Australia had an estimated population of 100 512 and Northern Territory had 74 546.
Significantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians comprised 30% of the population of the
Northern Territory, the highest proportion of any state or territory (Australian Bureau of Statistics,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are spread across urban, regional and remote Australia. Most (81%)
were living in non-remote areas at the time of the 2016 Census. The more remote the area, the greater the
proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population at 30 June 2016 had a younger age structure than the
non-Indigenous population, with larger proportions of young people and smaller proportions of older
people, reflecting higher fertility rates as well as higher mortality rates than the non-Indigenous population.
The median age of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population at 30 June 2016 was 23.0 years,
compared to 37.8 years for the non-Indigenous population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018[48]).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children account for 44% of all children in remote areas in Australia,
despite making up less than 6% of all children in Australia and are 12 times as likely as non-Indigenous
children to live in remote areas (SNAICC, 2020[40]).


20  EDU/WKP(2021)8


The Canadian Constitution recognises three groups of Indigenous peoples: First Nation or North American
Indians, Métis and Inuit. Indigenous Canadians represent 4.9% of the total Canadian population (Statistics
Canada, 2016[49]).
Indigenous people live across Canada’s 13 jurisdictions – 10 Provinces and 3 Territories. During 2006-
2011, they were among the fastest growing population segments in Canada, growing at nearly four times
the pace of the non-Indigenous population (increase of 20.1% compared to 5.2%). By 2016, the Indigenous
population in Canada had seen 43% growth over ten years: 1 673 780 compared with 1 169 435 in 2006.
The highest rate of growth was among Métis people (51.2%), followed by First Nations (39.3%) and Inuit
(29.1%) people. While some of this growth was due to an increase in the number of people newly reporting
their identity as Indigenous in the Census, higher fertility rates also contributed to this growth (Halseth and
Greenwood, 2019[50]).
Indigenous peoples are also the youngest growing segment of Canada’s population. According to the 2016
Census, children under 5 years of age comprised a larger proportion of the Indigenous population than the
non-Indigenous population. While children under age 5 comprised 5.3% of the total non-Indigenous
population, they comprised 9.5% of the First Nations population, 7.2% of the Métis population, and 11.3%
of the Inuit population (Halseth and Greenwood, 2019[50]).

Fragile languages

Across the world many young children speak with their families in languages other than the dominant
national language(s) typically used in formal education contexts. Multilingualism is the norm in many
countries and Indigenous communities alike.

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 Box 1. Indigenous Languages
 Young Indigenous children in Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Canada may speak:
        traditional Indigenous languages are the original languages that have been spoken since before
         European colonisation, where inter-generational transmission of the languages has been
         maintained and children continue to learn and speak the languages;
        new Indigenous languages are languages that have been formed since colonisation by language
         contact between speakers of an Indigenous language and other language, such as English and
         French. These contact languages include various creoles and mixed languages. New Indigenous
         languages may be spoken almost exclusively by some Indigenous peoples, for instance in some
         parts of northern Australia. These languages have influences from a number of different
         language sources.
        an Indigenised variety of English, with features that make them sound different from the more
         standard varieties but are largely mutually comprehensible. Child speakers of an Indigenised
         variety of English may be misconstrued as not being able to speak (the standard language)
        a standard variety of the national language, such as English and/or French.
 The home languages for Indigenous children may be any of these language types, learned from birth,
 used as the main everyday form of communication within families and communities. It instances where
 inter-generational transmission of traditional or new Indigenous languages has been broken, Indigenous
 peoples may be learning or reviving a traditional language.
 Indigenous children’s language situations are highly diverse across Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia
 and Canada. Children’s learning is best supported when they are able to maintain and build on their
 home language. Other languages can be supportively introduced through age-appropriate second
 language practices suited to the child’s proficiency level.
 Source: (Angelo et al., 2019[51]), Well-being & Indigenous Language Ecologies (WILE): A strengths-based approach.
 Literature Review for the National Indigenous Languages Report, Pillar 2, https://openresearch-
 repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/186414 (accessed on 20 July 2021).

Aotearoa New Zealand

Aotearoa New Zealand is home to te reo Māori, “the Māori language”. Historically, te reo Māori was
spoken by Māori throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, although with some recognisable differences
associated with different regions and/or iwi “tribes” (Keegan, 2017[52]). Inseparable from the language are
the tikanga, the belief systems and cultural practices that underpin enactment of ‘‘being Māori.’’ (Rau and
Ritchie, 2011[30]). A major indicator of Māori well-being is the ability to use the Māori language (Durie,
From the 1960s, Aotearoa New Zealand policy focused on revitalising tikanga (culture/customs) Māori
and te reo (language). As part of a 1970s Māori renaissance, and in response to a survey (Benton, 1979[54]),
which showed the decline of the language, Kōhanga Reo (language nests) were established by communities
on their marae (tribal meeting grounds), so that the Elders could pass on Māori language and culture to
their grandchildren. Education, culture and language are intertwined.


22  EDU/WKP(2021)8

Māori leader Sir James Henare articulates the importance of the revitalisation of the Māori language for
Māori people:
          The language is the core of our Maori culture and mana. Ko te reo te mauri o te mana
          Maori (The language is the life force of the mana Maori). If the language dies, as some
          predict, what do we have left to us? Then, I ask our own people who are we? (Waitangi
          Tribunal, 1986[31]).

Te reo Māori was made an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand in 1987 alongside New Zealand
Sign Language. Although English is the most widely spoken language it does not have status in law as an
“official language”.
According to the 2013 Census, people who identified as Māori comprised 84.5% of those who described
themselves as conversationally proficient speakers of te reo Māori. And 148 400 people (or 3.7% of the
total Aotearoa New Zealand population) reported that they were able to hold a conversation in Māori.
Proficient speakers of te reo Māori are not distributed evenly throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, but are
more concentrated in areas of the North island.
Hana O’Regan has been an advocate of language revitalisation, particularly of the Ngāi Tahu dialect of
Māori in the South Island. She says knowing her dialect has made her feel more connected to her iwi
(tribe): “It's been important for me to try and establish a tūrakawaewae [place with rights to stand] within
our community within our whenua (land).” She says her daughter is now the first native speaker of Ngāi
Tahu reo (language) in her whānau (family) and uses it effortlessly (Radio New Zealand, 2018[55]).
Māori early childhood researcher Cheryl Rau, with Jenny Ritchie states:
          A Māori worldview recognises the central importance of te reo (the Māori language) as
          the source and mechanism for reflecting and transmitting tikanga [right way of doing
          things]. Valued and gifted from one generation to the next, te reo imprints Te Ao Māori
          [the Māori World] philosophy, weaving values and beliefs through metaphors, proverbs,
          and traditional stories (whakatauki, whakatauākī, pūrākau, pakiwaitara, and kōrero). Te
          reo is therefore critical to shaping Māori ways of knowing, doing, and being in
          articulations that are tika (right) […] Māori, as a metaphoric people, view te reo as he
          taonga tuku iho nō ngā tūpuna – the language is considered to be a treasure handed down
          from the Elders to the mokopuna (grandchildren) (Rau and Ritchie, 2011[30]).

In 2016 the Māori Language Act established Te Mātāwai as a representative of iwi and Māori for the
revitalisation of the language, with a partnership between iwi and Māori and the Crown represented by two
Maihi (barge boards) framing a traditional Māori house. The Maihi Māori language strategy 2017-2040
focuses on language revitalisation within communities and families, and the Maihi Karauna 2018-2023 is
the Crown’s strategy for revitalisation and use in wider society. This includes increasing the number of
children learning in te reo Māori (Te Puni Kōkiri, 2019[56])


There is diversity among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, with varying cultures,
customs, and languages. Many Indigenous communities in remote Australia are multilingual. Traditional
languages are those that were spoken prior to European colonisation and which continue to be spoken by
children today. Of the at least 250 distinct languages spoken at colonisation, under 20 are still spoken today
by children as their mother tongue. Of these the main Traditional Languages include the Western Desert
dialect chain (from areas of Western Australia and into the Northern Territory and South Australia,
including Pitjantjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra and Pintupi), the Arandic languages, Warlpiri, Murrinh Patha, Tiwi

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EDU/WKP(2021)8     23

and some Yolngu languages from Arnhem Land, as well as some Bininj Gunwok, Burarra, and
In addition, there are the “New languages”, “Contact languages”, or Kriols (systematic mixes or blends of
a Traditional Language with elements from a creole or English that have formed since colonisation). The
two large creoles are Kriol and Yumplatok spoken in northern Australia and Torres Strait Island.
Commonly in Australia, the term “Indigenous languages” does not differentiate between the Traditional
Languages and the New Languages. In the parts of Australia that were first settled, movements have also
arisen for reawakening Traditional Languages that for many decades have not been spoken as first
In 2005, the 145 Indigenous languages still spoken in Australia, 110 were considered critically endangered
(Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies; Federation of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Languages, 2005[57]).
In the 2016 Census, 64 762 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people responded that they speak an
Indigenous Australian language, although it cannot be determined exactly how many speak Traditional or
New languages. Of these, fewer than 40 000 self-reported as speaking a Traditional Language at home, at
the same time almost 15 000 people reported that they speak a New Indigenous Language at home (Angelo
et al., 2019[51]).
People living in Very Remote Australia were much less likely to speak English as their main language at
home than people living in major cities (32% compared to 94%) and much more likely to speak an
Australian Indigenous language at home (58% compared to 1%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018[48]).


From a cultural perspective, Indigenous people in Canada comprise over 50 distinct and diverse groups,
each with its own distinct language and traditional land base (Ball, 2014[58]). Canada is a bilingual country
with English and French as the two official languages, but jurisdictions may give official status to
Indigenous languages. The Yukon Territory, for example, has its own Official Languages Policy that
recognises eight Indigenous languages in addition to French and English. As result, all public schools have
Indigenous language programming, from kindergarten upwards. All students – Indigenous and non-
Indigenous – take the Indigenous language class in kindergarten. These classes help First Nations
children’s transition to public schooling (Meek, 2018[59]).
Of the 329 languages that we know were spoken at the time of contact on the North American continent,
fewer than 50 continue to be acquired as a mother tongue by children (Goddard, 1996[60]). The largest
languages are Atikamekw (Cree/Algonquian), Innu/Montagnais (Cree/Algonquian), and Inuktitut (Inuit
language family), Athapaskan and Ojibway (Statistics Canada, 2016[49]). For the most part,
North American languages are no longer transmitted to children or used as the everyday language of
communication. There are exceptions, for example Dene Suline (formerly known as Chipewyan) an
Athapaskan language is still spoken in Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba and Alberta.


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